Life post-COVID and the long road back to normal

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The new normal for music. // Photo by Jim Nimmo

Walking into the front door and down the stairs of my suburban two-story split home gives way to what used to be a finished basement used for watching sports and playing PS4. Now, it is a home gym, a Zoom conference meeting room, and my office (with a folding chair on top of a folding table for a stand-up desk effect). The reality that this is a similar situation in many homes is close to ending, and with the stay-at-home measures ending in most of Missouri this week, many will be back to offices and workspaces soon enough. Yet, significant change is bound to be realized.

Famed psychologist and Harvard’s Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology, Dr. Daniel Gilbert, said in his 2014 Tedx Academy talk in Athens, Greece, that the human mind will identify threats if they adhere to four basic criteria. If a threat is intentional, immoral, imminent, and instantaneous the mind will react powerfully. He equates how the human mind does react to terrorism—which adheres to all four criteria—but not to global warming. In a brief exchange with Gilbert for this article, he stated that COVID-19 “isn’t immoral (though Trump’s attempt to label it the Wuhan Virus is indeed an attempt to make it seem like an attack by a human enemy) and isn’t intentional, but it is very clearly instantaneous and imminent—it is happening right now and people who get it very quickly go from healthy to dead. So, it has two of the properties needed to trigger the psychological alarm system, and that appears to be enough.”

Indeed, two of those criteria do seem to have been enough with virtually all of the country shutting down for the past two months and even leading some politicians like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) to liken the virus to 9/11. Around News Years 2020, no one had ever uttered the word “social-distancing” or “stay-at-home” measures—save for maybe those that are happily introverted and chronic homebodies. Those words have become more commonplace and spill off our lips every day and are a staple in our vocabulary. Now, with things beginning to reopen, there will undoubtedly be some new social norms that people would have never dreamt of even in January of this year. 

Dr. Chris Cornine, a psychologist and Clinical Director of Diakonos Counseling in Kansas City, says, “the awareness and fear of another pandemic will increase, at least for one generation, and society will have better/quicker responses to these viral threats. [However] it will affect how people do basic things—maybe no more handshaking, always wiping down high touch areas, using hand sanitizer multiple times per day, etc.” 

Not only will many people take the practical measures listed by Cornine, but in social matters, there might be even a cognitive shift to how we feel while interacting with others. Mariel Frankl, who served in the Peace Corps in El Salvador and now works in advertising technology in New York City, is engaged but had to postpone the wedding because her fiancé got stuck in Italy while visiting family. She said in a phone interview that after all of this begins to subside, “I cannot imagine not having a voice in the back of my head that says, ‘Don’t do that,’ when shaking someone’s hand, or hugging a friend” post-coronavirus. The thought is warranted. How is that person’s hygiene? What people were they around before they met up with you? Questions rarely, if ever, asked before this pandemic may now be commonplace in the inner recesses of people’s minds. 

Not only will social interactions be affected, but businesses will have a lot of shift happening as well. Businesses will have a real responsibility to come up with new social-distancing measures that will help them reignite the economy while staying within the measures of both governmental orders and social expectations. 

As reported by CNN last week, one barbershop in Albany, Georgia, CUT-ology, reopened but not without significant changes. The owner decided to wear gloves and a construction facemask, while also making it mandatory for clients to wear gloves and a mask in order to enter. Surely, not every barber in Missouri will open under the same precautions, but many others may deem such measures necessary, especially under the 10/10/10 Stage 1 initiative in Kansas City. This will make some areas of business look more like a news story from a polluted city in China, than a Midwestern marketplace—at least for an extended season. 

Places of worship, also, will have stricter rules in place. If you walked into an at-capacity Christian church like Liberty Christian Fellowship in Liberty, MO just a few months ago, it would have looked a lot different than it will when it reopens to in-person gatherings. New norms could include, at least for a season, families seated together in clusters with chairs vacant around them, no passing of communion or donations, and possibly different service structures than what was normal before the quarantine. 

However, no public sector is set to change more than the medical one. Prominent Omaha psychiatry specialist, Dr. Arun Sharma, said that he recently met with 18 patients in one day, all by telephone. Change has happened already, that is for sure, but the longevity and severity of that change is still unclear. In several respects, it seems like some aspects might be here to stay. Sharma says that his practice has been “talking about telemedicine for years…this is going to catapult into full-blown virtual medicine.” There will still be face-to-face medicine, of course, but with the explosive rise of Zoom in the past few weeks, practices are seeing the validity of virtual appointments. Cornine agrees, “Telemedicine will become mainstream and standard. Insurance companies will cover telemedicine visits, and this will hopefully lead to easier access of care, especially for rural residents and those who find it difficult to get to a doctor’s office.”

Both Sharma and Cornine reported a rise in patients with generalized anxiety and depression. Sharma mentioned that of those he worked with that already suffered from mental illness struggles, 20-25% of them have recessed into deeper levels of anxiety and depression because of the worry, constant dire news streams, and their own running mind. 

However, not all the feedback I received was negative or even neutral. There is great potential for there to be some enticing silver-linings to this pandemic as well. 

Renowned philosopher and Distinguished Professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, Dr. J.P. Moreland, told me that he thinks that people are growing more open to utilizing the support of others, and that more and more people are contemplating the meaning of life. Self-reflection, learning how to ask others for help—being more communal—and a change of pace are certainly silver-linings that can help slow the rat-race of life in America. 

Families are eating meals around dinner tables, more people are on walks and being outside regularly, and through technology, more people are connecting with family and friends—not letting weeks and months go by without having the time to strengthen relationships. These are aspects of life that all should reflect on and grow in because of this pandemic. Moreland also thought that more Americans would be open to religion as they seek meaning. Regardless of one’s feelings towards religion, more people finding meaning in life, being active outdoors, spending time with family, and strengthening relationships can only be an overdue improvement for America’s health.

And if that be the case, Sharma was spot-on when he said, “We are all reflecting and grateful for the things that are going well.” Further, from an emotional standpoint, “Feelings have to be acknowledged but not judged. Then you’ve got to let them go. We are all feeling the same from time to time. It is not a sign of weakness. It is not bad, right or wrong. These times are unprecedented. Notice your feelings; notice your thoughts. Don’t judge. Then let go and focus on your tasks at hand. Follow guidelines, stay active, stay connected. We are all in it together.”

Change can be scary. The velocity at which change came about at the beginning of this pandemic was obviously enough to cause a great deal of stress in many. Working out of that change—moving out of “working basements” and back into offices—and accepting new social norms might be hard, but together it can be done and done with graciousness and patience towards others. 

Change is around the corner, but not all change is bad. 


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